1 Sam 8:4-11; Mark 3:20-35
This morning we are recognizing young people who received scholarships this year. We also honor those who are graduating. Graduations are called commencement ceremonies, acknowledging a tension around graduation: on the one hand your accomplishments are being recognized; on the other you’re at a new beginning. It’s fun to celebrate accomplishments. New beginnings are challenging. I remember starting 7th grade in a new school. I was scared to death. In history class we worked through a book entitled Study is Hard Work. I lost the book the second week of school, but was too scared to tell anyone. I preferred to flunk that section. I just wanted to look, act and be like everyone else. I didn’t know how to do 7th grade so I looked around to see how others did it, never imagining that they too were looking around for clues.
In every new community in which we find ourselves we tend to look around for approval and guidance: a graduate beginning a career; a person starting a new job; a family moving to a new city. The student who was raised with strong moral standards notices that all the other kids cheat on exams and copy the work of others. He holds out for a while but then realizes everyone is doing it. The factory worker starts performing at high productivity because she was raised to have pride in her work. But she soon realizes that she is doing more work than others and not getting rewarded, so she begins to slack off. The school teacher gifted in working with students observes that students respond well to her unorthodox teaching style. But the principal warns her that the school district frowns on teachers who do things differently. So she starts conforming.
This was Israel’s situation when they came to Samuel and said, “Give us a king to govern us like other nations.” Things hadn’t gone that well for Israel in the Promised Land. Their last two leaders, the priest Eli and now Samuel, who was judge, priest and prophet, had been good leaders; but their sons were no good. They weren’t able to take the mantle from their fathers, so the people felt insecure, and started doing what most of us do when we feel insecure: look around at what others are doing.
The desire to conform when we feel insecure is not all bad. It’s so natural that there must be some validity to it. It’s how culture develops. People who live in the same environment figure out ways to make their lives work. Those ways become part of their identity and determine which people belong to the culture and which do not. Professions have this as well. Lawyers, architects, teachers, and factory workers each have their own culture. The problem arises when conformity stifles creativity and we stop listening to the inner voice calling us to uniqueness.
God told Samuel to show people the ultimate consequences of conformity. It turns out kings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be: “he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and be his horsemen and to run before his chariots; he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work; he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”
The Gospel speaks to us from the other side of this journey. While Israel was being shown the consequences of conformity, Jesus reveals the cost of living in obedience to the nonconforming call of God. Jesus was definitely not being the kind of Messiah people expected. He was overworked and underfed and his family was worried: “He’s gone out of his mind.” The Scribes were calling him the devil incarnate. Here we are close to the core of Jesus’ vocation and life in Israel. What had Jesus done that evoked this charge?
Jesus was questioning the dominant myth of the system by which Israel was living. He said things like, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath;” and “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners; and, not only God can forgive sins; so can humans. No respectable Messiah would say things like that. The Messiah was the ideal of Jewishness and conformed to Jewish expectations. But Jesus wasn’t conforming, and was questioning the dominant myth. And guess who the custodians of that myth were? Yup, the Scribes. They knew the Scriptures; they were educated; they translated, copied and interpreted the laws. When Jesus questioned the myth and called it a lie, it was a frontal attack on the Scribes. It’s no surprise they started saying Jesus was crazy, dangerous and misinformed.
Jesus calls us to be his followers in questioning the dominant myths of our day as part of what it means to follow him. But there is a cost to doing that. When people used to come to Mexico on the travel seminars I offered, they began to see the world differently, and awakened to a new set of life options. Many responded by stepping outside their boundaries. I often had to counsel people around conflicts with parents, spouses and friends, who thought they had gone off the deep end. When we question those myths, we are confronting their custodians: professors, managers, supervisors, executives, store owners and the media. We’re bombarded with messages that make it difficult to question, much less break ranks with, the dominant myths. Jesus could see the error in the myths of his day because he reflected regularly on his life, his mission and on the lives of people he met.
What do we see when we step back and reflect on our lives, our mission, and the lives of people we meet? I sometimes get the opportunity to do that. The past week I participated in a retreat with the Abrahamic Faiths Peace Initiative. We reflected on the theme of Violence and Religion. I gained amazing insights into cultural myths about Jews and about Muslims, and how their faith traditions actually treat the subjects of peace and violence. Is it really true that the Muslim religion is violent at its core? Are the groups visiting violence on the Middle East really Muslims? Is it possible to criticize Israel and not be anti-Semitic?
In 2001, ten days after 9/11, Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi-American and Muslim living in Dallas, was shot in the face at a convenience store by Mark Anthony Stroman who believed he was shooting "Arabs" in retaliation for the 9/11 attack. Bhuiyan gained national attention by appealing to the court to save Stroman from the death penalty, saying "I'm trying to do my best not to allow the loss of another human life. Islam says that saving one human life is the same as saving all of mankind. Since I forgave him, all those principles encouraged me to go even further, and stop his execution and save another human life." The shooting revealed the dominant Islamophobia in America at the time. Bhuiyan’s response was counter-cultural and non-conforming.
When someone stands up and calls the myth a lie, the custodians of the myth shout that the person is crazy, dangerous and misinformed. Jesus said the truth would set us free, so we must seek the truth at all costs, beyond the myths of our culture. We must live to the beat of a different drum and a different drummer. The dominant drum has a powerful beat. It’s difficult to beat out of rhythm. We must hear the beat inside. We must gather together to hear the beat of that different drum. Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus distancing himself from his blood family. But he called together a new family, based on obedience to the will of God.